For much of human history foraging for food was the norm. For nearly 200,000 years people lived on what they could find in their natural environment. This meant gathering food from the land and hunting wild animals. This way of life meant that relatively small groups of people were subject to what their environment could provide. They could either find sustenance in one area or move as needed. If their present location was insufficient in resources, they could follow migration patterns of wild animals or look for more naturally fertile areas.
Agriculture originated in about 9,000 BC. What follows is a brief time line of the early stages of agriculture:
- Around 9,000 BC agriculture begins east of the Mediterranean in the place known as the Fertile Crescent. Relatively close by agriculture also appears in the Nile Valley. Wheat is the crop of choice in these regions.
- Then in about 6,000 BC there is evidence of rice farming in China, and in Papua New Guinea they are growing yam and taro.
- After a few thousand years in roughly 2,000 BC framing pops up in scattered regions of the world: In West Africa sorghum and millet are being harvested, South America is cultivating potatoes and Central America is now growing maize and squash.
Interestingly, most of the plants that feed humans today were domesticated before the first century. From these initial regions framing would continue to spread around the globe. Why did humans change their way of life after so many years of foraging? One factor worth considering is that agriculture developed independently in unconnected parts of the world. What could account for this fact? It happens that the beginning of agriculture coincides with the end of the last ice age. This was a global phenomenon; as regions warmed framing became possible.
Another factor was increasing population. In a scarcely populated planet it would have been much easier to find fresh areas to forage even if some distance had to be covered. As population grew it became more difficult to keep up with rival groups coveting the same lands. At this point, the best option was to settle in one area and farm. Once this happened population continued to grow and villages sprang up.
Settling down had an exponential effect on population; mainly because woman no longer needed to travel with children. As you can imagine, all this was a gradual process. The earth warmed over time and not all people adopted framing at once. Around 10,000 BC the earth had somewhere between 5 to 8 million foragers; by the first century only 1 to 2 million people were foragers and farmers consisted of 250 million people. With the adoption of agriculture a threshold in human development had been reached.
The Birth of Civilization
Adopting agriculture initiated a huge shift in how humans lived. When groups of people made the decision to settle in one region, a whole series of events followed. Along with agriculture came the domestication of animals; the most docile and fattest species were chosen. These animals could be used for their skin, fur, meat, milk and eggs. Some farm animals were also valuable for labor. Perhaps land that could not be harvested before could now be plowed with the aid of domesticated animals.
Once villagers became dependent on agriculture for sustenance, they now had something very valuable to protect. Their lives depended on farm land, animals, and crops. The notions of property, state, law and quite possibly economics can be traced back to the early agrarian villages. What’s more, in time the shift to agriculture made cities and empires possible. With the first crops came questions that did not previously exist. Who manages the land, animals and crops? How will the area be protected from other humans and pests? If there was a surplus of food, should it be traded and who acquired the wealth?
Not All its Cracked up to be
In most cases development come with a cost; the adoption of agriculture was no exception. As you can imagine, the life of foragers was probably not an easy existence. However, it does not mean that early farmers had an easy time of it. Framing with primitive tools was hard work and as societies emerged a hierarchy was created. This usually meant that a large group of people toiled for the benefit of the higher class. I can’t help but think that if it were not for agriculture, would slavery have existed in the same way? And let’s not forget the fate of farm animals, who in effect, have been enslaved for thousands of years. At the hands of humans, some of these animals have been subjected to cruelties too numerous to mention.
Along with farming came villages and cities. Larger groups of people living in close proximity were more susceptible to disease than in the past. At a time when little was known about infectious disease, the early agrarian societies had to deal with sickness that could spread like never before. Also vulnerable was the food supply itself. Now dependent on a successful harvest, what then if crops failed? They could stock pile grain if there was a surplus, but a succession of poor growing seasons could mean starvation. Still today we celebrate Thanksgiving at harvest time, because a good harvest meant so much for so long.
Even if growing seasons were stellar, the invaluable farm land needed to be protected. War was a natural consequence of agriculture because territory became more valuable than ever before. Think for a moment of how many wars have been fought over territory. The idea of controlling or owning land was a game changer in human behavior, and not always for the best.
A New Way of Thinking About the Future
Looking ahead and planning is something we all do without much thought. Thinking about the future is virtually a necessity in the modern world. The life of foragers would have been far more present oriented. They would have likely consumed most of the meat they hunted on a particular day, saving only a little extra. Their foraging needs would have been best served by picking daily. There is no better preservative than nature. The food supply was out there, in the wild. Realistically, how far ahead could they really plan for?
Agriculture made it necessary for humans to foresee into the future (more so than before). Cultivating land, planting and harvesting are future oriented endeavors. Working for a pay off several months down the road requires planning. From the moment humans began the ambitious task of farming, our lives were destined to become more complicated. Farming led to civilizations; which entails governments, laws, economics and a multitude of complications. On the other hand, this future mind-set has allowed us to progress far beyond what the early farmers could have ever imagined. Nevertheless, it was their venture into agriculture which started the ball rolling on a path to civilization.
References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (Canada: Signal Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, 2014).
Why Was Agriculture So Important? | Big History Project, Published on May 19, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hx6-m510hjU.
Mankind: The Story of All of Us: Birth of Farming | History, Published on Dec 2, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhzQFIZuNFY.